Film reviews round-up: Patriots Day, A Cure for Wellness, Southern Fury, It's Only the End of the World, Best

A modern American tragedy, Gore Verbinski's genre mash-up, Nic Cage at his wildest, Xavier Dolan's latest, and a documentary on football's first superstar

A Cure For Wellness (18)

★★☆☆☆

Gore Verbinski, 146 mins, starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Celia Imrie, Mia Goth, Adrian Schiller, Carl Lumbly, Susanne Wuest

As if determined to move as far away as possible from the high jinks of Pirates Of The Caribbean, director Gore Verbinski has now come up with this visually spectacular but muddled and pretentious Magic Mountain-style yarn. With its surrealistic palate, A Cure For Wellness seems at times like one of Tim Burton's darker offerings but it conspicuously lacks the charm and wit that Burton invariably brings to his work. The film takes itself very seriously - and that's part of the problem.

Early on, this seems to be shaping up as a grim satire about ruthless, unhappy Wall St. folk. The film begins in grim fashion with a prolonged scene of a heart attack of one senior executive, dying at his desk. Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, a young and ambitious employee at the same firm. He is crooked but not as crooked as his bosses.

They're planning a merger and need the signature of the chief executive Pembroke, who has gone AWOL and is holed up in a spa in faraway Switzerland, where he appears to have become a rabid anti-capitalist. Lockhart is despatched to bring him back. The spa is presided over by Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who is a cross between Bela Lugosi and Basil Fawlty. It is full of seemingly sweet natured geriatrics who spend their days playing croquet or solving crossword puzzles. Lockhart is in a great rush to get back to New York but ends up becoming a very long term resident.

A Cure For Wellness is a wildly over-determined affair. It has trappings of Gothic horror; plentiful references to Hitchcock, Kubrick and Von Trier; sci fi elements; moments which wouldn't be out of place in the most precious European art house film, and it plays at times like a complex conspiracy thriller. Individual scenes are very striking indeed. There's a spectacular car crash, one of the most gruesome movie dentistry drilling scenes this side of Marathon Man, and lots of phantasmagoric imagery of eels coiling and slithering their way round characters.

Verbinski makes very imaginative use of the labyrinthine lay-out of the spa building, with its bath houses, laboratories, lifts and hidden corridors. He creates an oppressive, dream-like atmosphere. We’re never quite sure whether Lockhart’s visions are “real” or are a result of overwork and childhood trauma. The spa is bizarrely reminiscent of the hotel featured in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. It is impossible to tell whether its residents are guests, inmates, patients or test tube dummies for Volmer’s infernal experiments.

One strategic mistake is to put the leading man's leg in plaster for almost the entire movie. A broken leg may have worked for James Stewart in Rear Window, but here it means that DeHaan is forever hobbling. It becomes increasingly frustrating watching him struggle to reach his next destination. The fact that his crutches can be used as weapons is only a very minor compensation.

A Cure For Wellness - Trailer 2

It doesn’t help, either, that the film has such an interminable running time. We end up spending so long with Lockhart in the spa that the cabin fever soon sets in. Justin Haythe’s screenplay takes some very surprising turns. There are queasy moments in which Lockhart almost drowns in a water tank because the medical orderly is too busy masturbating to notice that his oxygen tube is dislodged.

Incest, sexual abuse and plentiful imagery of foetuses are thrown into the mix. There are lots of self-conscious anachronisms. The film is set in the present day but everybody in the spa behaves as if they’re stuck in the 1920s. Up at these rarefied heights in the Swiss Alps, mobile phones don’t work. The spa’s filing system is paper-based.

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“There is a terrible darkness here,” Celia Imrie’s sweet natured old lady tells Lockhart. The spa is built on the site of a castle which was set on fire by the townsfolk two centuries before because of the infernal doings of the wicked baron who owned it. One patient, Hannah (Mia Goth), a dreamy-like ingenue who looks like a younger version of Shelley Duvall in The Shining, has some sinister connection with Dr. Volmer which only gradually becomes apparent.

A Cure For Wellness is rich and strange but ultimately very frustrating. For all of its visual ingenuity and its wealth of ideas, its plotting is turgid in the extreme. By the final reel, many viewers will be suffering from the same deadening, enervating feeling - the sense of extreme torpor, bafflement. and absolute befuddlement - that seems to afflict the residents in the spa.

★★★☆☆

Peter Berg, 130 mins, starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan

How do you make sense of an event like the Patriots Day bombing of the Boston Marathon? On a beautiful day in April 2013, two home grown "terrorists" detonated home-made bombs near the finishing line of the race, killing three people and injuring more than 200 others. The terrorists then went on the run, sparking a massive manhunt.

Peter Berg's film covers the bombing and the days that immediately followed. Like Berg's last feature, Deepwater Horizon (also starring Mark Wahlberg), it somehow fashions an uplifting story from events that seemed senseless, bloody and chaotic at the time. Patriots Day is brilliantly made but often hollow and unconvincing as drama.

This is a story in which there are two villains - the Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan, who plant the bombs - but in which just about everybody else is selfless and heroic in the extreme. They take their cue from their home city. They are "Boston strong". In the face of senseless carnage, they come together.

Berg has an obvious flair for making films based on true life incidents and with multiple characters and overlapping storylines. The first half hour of Patriots Day is riveting. The exaggerated normality of the early scenes immediately puts us on edge. All the main protagonists are introduced one by one. Although they're only on screen fleetingly, we are given an immediate sense of their foibles and passions.

Patriots Day - Trailer

Wahlberg's Tommy is a hard drinking, big hearted, salt of the earth sergeant, back on duty after being suspended for unspecified disciplinary reasons. He has a bad knee, a condition which kicking down suspects' doors doesn't help, and moves very gingerly. His frustration at being posted at the finish line of the marathon is self evident. He'd far rather be catching real criminals than trying to keep runners dressed as lobsters in line.

Wahlberg is a fitting star for the Trump era, the craggy blue collar everyman taking on America’s enemies (as in Berg’s Lone Survivor) or exposing corruption and incompetence (cleaning the swamp). His character in Patriots Day is fictional, but concocted to be the all-American hero.

J.K. Simmons plays Jeffrey Pugliese, a sergeant from the Watertown suburbs; a laconic and patient man who calculates everything carefully. We know as much from the way he places his still smouldering cigar on a ledge outside when he enters a cafe, knowing he will have time to finish it later. Predictably, when he is called into action, he behaves in exactly the same painstaking fashion.

Alongside the cops are the civilians: the marathon runners, young lovers, parents and kids who have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The filmmakers sketch in their back stories in expert fashion. We're even given a glimpse into the everyday domestic lives of the terrorists, complete with toddlers, TV, and cellphones. It's when the older one describes Martin Luther King as a fornicator and a hypocrite that we realise the extent of their grudge against America.

Patriots Day stands as a tribute to the city in which it is set. Berg portrays the different sections of the community in an idealised way. Divisions across class, social, and ethnic lines seem non-existent. In the wake of the bomb blast, everybody, whether Red Sox fans or MIT boffins, comes together.

The film features some fine actors in supporting roles (Kevin Bacon as the harassed FBI special agent and John Goodman’s hardbitten police chief among them) but none can compete with Boston itself. The city helps flush out the Tsarnaev brothers. All the experts overseeing the manhunt - the government officials, representatives from the Mayor’s office, the senior cops and the FBI agents - are secondary to the local citizens.

As in Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Berg is operating in a grey area between documentary and dramatic features. One of the most impressive aspects here is the seamless way in which recreations and newsreel footage are brought together. Every detail, from the revelations about the brothers’ web browsing histories (they watched “more pornography than Bin Laden” it is joked) to the stuttering exchanges between the Tsarnaevs and the young Chinese émigré whose Mercedes they carjack, has clearly been exhaustively researched.

As a police procedural drama, Patriots Day works fine, albeit with a few very loose strands. The problem is how simple minded and jingoistic the film soon becomes. “Go get the motherf*ckers!” one character growls as the net draws in on the brothers. We’re left with an old fashioned revenge story in which the posse hunts down the outlaws.

You don’t expect the filmmakers to express any sympathy for the Tsarnaevs after they’ve killed and maimed so many innocent people. It might have helped, though, for Berg to have provided more context and background about the brothers and to have explored just why they became radicalised in the first place.

Arguably, the most disturbing and powerful scene in the film is the interrogation of Tamerlan's wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist). She is neither co-operative nor apologetic. Russell’s lawyer has complained that she is depicted unfairly but this is one of the few moments in which we’re given any sense of the bombers’ ideas and motivations. It’s a chilling scene which punctures the mood of resilience and optimism that the film tries so hard to build elsewhere.

Southern Fury (18)

★☆☆☆☆

Steven C. Miller, 95 mins, starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Johnathon Schaech, Adrian Grenier, Lydia Hull

Southern Fury is a low grade Cain and Abel-style crime thriller which was clearly made quickly and cheaply in spite of its high profile cast. It is very violent, very sentimental, and has one of Nic Cage’s most deranged and eccentric performances yet as the main villain.

Adrian Grenier (from Entourage) plays successful small businessman J.P.. Johnathon Schaech is his older, ne’er-do-well brother, Mikey. As we discover in flashbacks, they grew up amid poverty and violence. J.P. has prospered whereas Mikey is divorced and destitute. He has been drummed out of the marines and has borrowed money from J.P which he has then used to try to buy and sell drugs.

Cage plays Eddie King, a mobster with more than a passing resemblance to British comedian Paul Whitehouse. He wears an absurd wig and gold necklace, has a handlebar moustache and looks throughout the film as if he is about to burst out into song. His lounge lizard appearance belies his brutality.

Director Steven C. Miller shoots the violence in very stylised fashion, with lots of slow motion of bullets spiralling and droplets of blood hanging in the air. Eddie is the type who’ll rip off the face of his antagonists or smash them up with baseball bats. Like every other character in the movie, he’s also prey to extreme self-pity.

The plotting is very contrived. Eddie kidnaps Mikey (everyone thinks with Mikey’s collusion) and then demands $350,000 from J.P. as a ransom. That’s precisely the amount J.P. can raise if he sells off all his assets. John Cusack is an undercover detective who dresses like a rap star (in back to front baseball cap and sun glasses).

The film was originally going to be shot in Philadelphia but decamped to the Deep South, presumably to take advantage of tax breaks there. The Mississippi settings at least allow director Steven C. Miller to give the film a certain sweaty intensity. In their own warped way, the brothers are utterly devoted to one another.

There is something almost comical about the way that J.P. puts his brother’s well-being ahead of his family or business interests. “It is my turn to protect you, big bro, we’re going to kill those motherf*ckers,” he tells his sibling. This is absolutely not a film that warrants a cinema release but it might just qualify as a guilty pleasure for fans nostalgic for mindless, macho, straight-to-video action movies.

It’s Only The End Of The World (15)

★★★☆☆

Xavier Dolan, 99 mins, starring: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Gaspard Ulliel, Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Gaspard Ulliel

Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s latest feature has a Chekhovian feel. Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a famous young gay writer, returns home for the first time in 12 years. He is there to “announce” his death. He is suffering from a terminal illness. His arrival stirs up very mixed feelings among his family, who are completely unaware of his condition.

His mother (Nathalie Baye) and younger sister Suzanne (Lea Seydoux) are delighted to see him, the family is proud of his achievements but his brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) is bitterly resentful of him. This is essentially a chamber piece, albeit a subtle and delicately crafted one. Adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play, it is almost entirely set within the family home. Dolan continually resorts to huge close-ups, often in slow motion, using these to register every small change in the characters’ expressions and emotions as they try to work out each others’ motivations.

Catherine (Marion Cotillard), Antoine’s wife, is terrified of boring their illustrious guest with her stories about her children. Suzanne is awe-struck at Louis’ presence. She was so young when he left that she can barely remember him and knows him best from his elliptical postcards and articles. Antoine is simmering with anger and can hardly bare to look at his brother.

He thinks that Louis is on some glorified nostalgia trip - the great writer revisiting the provincial haunts of his childhood, perhaps as research for a new play or article. There are some fine performances here, especially from Cotillard as the wide-eyed and naive sister-in-law and from the scowling Cassel. This may be a filmed play but Dolan’s graceful treatment of the material ensures that it rarely feels too stagy or claustrophobic.

Best (12A)

★★★★☆

Daniel Gordon, 92 mins, features: George Best.

Daniel Gordon's new feature documentary reveals its subject at his most glorious - and at his most abject. It's a portrayal of George Best that goes well beyond the received image of the footballer as a flawed genius and shows him as those closest to him, especially the women in his life, saw him. It is not a flattering picture.

Best at his lowest ebbs (of which there were many) was a shambling, self-pitying drunk who wrought destruction in his own life and in the lives of those closest to him. He's the wife beater who couldn't stop drinking even after his liver transplant, the wastrel who disappeared for days on ends on binges. At the same time, Gordon makes it clear that those he hurt the most retained a huge affection for him and that Best was a victim himself, preyed on by the media and unable to help himself.

Gordon makes ingenious use of voiceover from Best, who died over a decade ago, to make it seem as if the footballer is narrating his own story. This is an illuminating and moving film which shows Best at his seediest and most pathetic but never loses sight of the brilliance that made the homesick kid from Belfast into football’s first superstar.

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